Take a crystal clear lake, snow-capped mountains and a medieval Old Town, then add the best of clocks, cheese and chocolate and you have the picture-perfect Swiss destination: Lucerne.
Called the City of Light (according to legend an angel with a light showed the settlers where to build a chapel), Lucerne celebrates its name with a new Lichtfestival, held for the first time in January 2019. This year will also mark the 200th anniversary of Lucerne’s art museum with an extensive William Turner exhibition (6 July-13 October). The Romantic painter spent some time in Lucerne and his drawings of the lake and mountains are on display at Tate Britain.
What to do in Lucerne
Stroll over water
The River Reuss divides Lucerne into an old and new town; connecting the two is the world’s oldest covered wooden bridge, the Chapel Bridge, constructed in 1332. The painted panels under its roof, added in the 17th century, portray scenes of Swiss and local history. Stroll on the Kapellbrucke which leads to the landmark of Lucerne, the octagonal Water Tower.
Pay your respects
Described by Mark Twain as “the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world”, the “Dying Lion of Lucerne” commemorates the heroism of Swiss soldiers who died in 1792 during the French Revolution, when the Tuileries Palace in Paris was stormed. The monument was proposed by an officer who had been on leave during the massacre, and was carved in a section of natural cliff in the 1820s.
Conquer Mount Pilatus
Make your way up Lucerne’s local mountain, Pilatus, to shout from its 2,128m high snow-covered top. Breathtaking views notwithstanding, you might also be speechless after riding on the world’s steepest cogwheel railway from Alpnachstad (open May-November). Alternatively, take a 15-minute bus ride to Kriens and sail up on the panorama gondolas, followed by the aerial cableway “Dragon Ride”; roundtrip CHF72 (£56).
Go museum hopping
Lucerne has an enviable selection of museums, from the Museum of Art focusing on contemporary pieces (entry CHF15/£12), to the Rosengart collection, which shows classic modernists, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and other artists of the 19th and 20th centuries (entry CHF18/£14). There’s also the Swiss Museum of Transport with over 3,000 items reflecting road, rail, water, air and space travel; day pass CHF56 (£43).
Where to stay in Lucerne
Switzerland’s first jailhouse hotel, the Barabas, is a budget-friendly accommodation option if you don’t mind sleeping behind bars. The name is derived from a former inmate whose wall painting can still be seen in one of the rooms. Choose from multi-bed rooms, singles, doubles and family rooms and get locked up in one of the 60 converted cells. Doubles from CHF82.50 (£66), room only.
Located on Lake Lucerne with unobstructed views of the water and Mt Pilatus in the distance, Hotel Beau Sejour charms with an eclectic mix of old chandeliers and modern artworks on the walls. All 28 rooms are traditionally furnished and some have private balconies. Breakfast is plentiful, and the Swiss butterzopf bread as well as the cheese selection are delicious. Doubles from CHF180 (£139), B&B.
After nine years of construction, the Burgenstock Resort, comprising four hotels, an Alpine spa and 12 restaurants, opened its doors in August 2017. A hotel has stood on the site some 500m above Lake Lucerne since 1873, welcoming Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren, Swiss socialites and even royalty. Doubles from CHF279 (£221) at Taverne 1879.
Where to eat in Lucerne
If you’re searching for hearty, traditional Swiss food, the Wirtshaus Taube is the right place to go. Dishes like the signature meat loaf are cooked and prepared according to old recipes and served up in a rustic dining room complete with sturdy wooden furniture.
Since October 2018, Nozomi has been bringing Japanese cuisine to Lucerne. You won’t find any sushi here, but fresh ingredients and creative dishes will whisk you away to Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka. Perfect for a light lunch stop: be sure to try the chicken nanban.
The fiery embers of the “Josper oven-grill” at Restaurant Anker produce crispy meat, fish and vegetable specialities that are finger-licking good. The design oozes cool, featuring bare brick walls and off-beat lighting.
Where to drink in Lucerne
Switzerland might not be known for its beer but the Rathausbrauerei impresses with its self-brewed tipple which uses Pilatus spring water stemming from the oldest complex of springs in Lucerne. The zesty compositions are accompanied by sausage specialities made to local recipes by Lucerne butchers.
Close to the Chapel Bridge, Blend Teehaus has rebranded as Pura, offering plant-based dishes, regional beer and wine and great coffee roasted in Lucerne by Cafe Tacuba.
After the sun goes down, night owls and party lovers flock to Max Restaurant and Bar in the newer part of town for cocktails and entertainment. Try the house mix Gema, made from nine different spirits, and dance the night away to live music on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Where to shop in Lucerne
No trip to Switzerland is complete without trying its famous chocolate. If you fancy taking some culinary delights home, then Max Chocolatier is a great place to shop. The small boutique on Lucerne’s waterfront offers artisan chocolates as well as a 90-minute workshop and tasting; from CHF120 (£92) per couple.
Stroll along the main shopping street, Hertensteinstrasse, for both big brands and unexpected finds. Lucerne is one of the world’s main centres for selling watches and most shops can be found around Schwanenplatz. Swiss watchmaker Bucherer offers a huge selection of Rolex watches if you’re feeling flush.
Every Saturday from 6am to 1pm, there’s a small farmers market along both sides of the Reuss. Local produce includes fruits and vegetables, flowers, meat, cheese and fresh pasta. In December, the Lozarner Wiehnachtsmart (Christmas market) is held on Franziskanerplatz where the smells of gingerbread, marroni and mulled wine attract visitors of all ages.
Shops in Lucerne are usually open longer on Thursdays (until 9pm), close early on Saturdays (4pm) and are closed on Sundays, except at the main train station.
Lucerne’s Culture and Congress Centre, the KKL.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
Swiss francs (CHF).
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
Even though a service charge is added to your bill, it’s common to reward friendly service with an extra tip.
What’s the time difference?
Lucerne is one hour ahead of the UK.
What’s the flight time from the UK?
Flights take 1 hour and 40 minutes to Zurich; Lucerne is an hour away by train.
The Lucerne Visitor Card, given out by accommodation providers, gives tourists free use of buses and trains within the city network.
From 19th-century castle Chateau Gutsch over the town and Lake Lucerne.
From April to September, join the locals at Inseli Park and lounge in a deck chair with a cold drink from the Buvette summer bar in hand.
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